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Flak-Catching With the Lawyerless
by Ralph Warner
Copyright © 1993 Nolo Press
We've made some headway in righting the wrongs of discrimination. But
hasn't made it over the threshhold of the courtroom doors.
Discrimination against people based on imagined group traits is always
nasty--especially when it results in the denial of opportunity to
rights, such as a job, a decent education or a freely-chosen place to
United States' powerful commitment to fight discrimination based on
preference and age--to mention just a few--defines what is best about
in the second half of the 20th century.
Unfortunately, despite progress in many areas of our public life,
courts remain a
stronghold of resistance to the defining ideal that all Americans are
equal treatment. Defined as a "non-lawyer" by the legal establishment,
who appears on his or her own behalf--or pro per--is routinely treated
third-class citizen by lawyers and judges, who seem to forget that
courts are not
their private preserve.
Lack of respect for anyone who is not a card-carrying member of the
fraternity is obvious from the moment you enter a courthouse. Unlike
government and many private facilities, maps of the building,
pamphlets or an information desk are missing.
Looking more closely at a typical courthouse, the intent to
pro pers is even more obvious. Some types of favoritism are petty.
are provided private work areas and phones, while everyone else is
benches and pay phones.
Other forms of favoritism are far more fundamental. Court clerks will
provide a confused lawyer step-by-step guidance to the wrangling rules
or scheduling cases, while rejecting the far more basic questions of
with a preemptory nod at a posted sign that reads: Court Clerks Cannot
Advice--For a Referral to a Lawyer, Call the County Bar Association.
This mean-spirited attitude toward the public is also reflected in the
Lawyers, even those who pant in ten minutes late, often have their
first. And when a pro per finally does get a chance to have a word in
judge is all too likely to greet him or her with a patronizing attitude
closed mind. For example, someone who asks that an impenetrable hunk of
jargon be translated into English, makes a small, easily-corrected
even hesitates a second too long is likely to be accused of clogging
busy schedule and told to get a lawyer.
Judges often defend the way they treat non-lawyers by comparing
themselves to a
baseball umpire suddenly faced with novice players who don't know the
do the best we can under difficult circumstances," they often claim.
Courts, as arbiters of fundamental rights, have an affirmative duty to
rules accessible and understandable--something organized sports do far
incidentally. The present system, under which the legal profession
substantive law and legal procedure, while judges then lecture pro pers
ignorant of both, is pathetic.
To take just a few examples of how our present judicial system
against non-lawyers, consider that:
- Even though the great majority of issues considered by a judge
unopposed--with success often assured by the right paperwork--no
effort is made
to provide easy-to-understand forms and instructions.
- Even though mastering both substantive law and legal procedure
gaining access to good information, little work--individual efforts
of a few
dedicated law librarians notwithstanding--is done to make law
libraries and their
materials accessible and understandable to the public.
- Even though a significant number of judges and clerks are
insultingly hostile to pro pers, absolutely nothing is done to
educate them to
change their behavior or discipline them if they don't.
To give Americans a decent chance to cope with their routine legal
without a lawyer, a radical change in judicial attitude is needed--and
fast. But no relief seems near. Although quick to appoint learned
look into claims of discrimination by minority or female attorneys, for
part our supposedly learned judges don't even understand how badly they
It's way past time they found out.
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